The Liberal Democrats' biggest enemy is relevance, not Brexit

Vince Cable and current leader Tim FarronJack Taylor / GettySir Vince Cable (left) with Tim Farron.
  • Vince Cable delivers his first speech as leader and insists his party is relevant again.
  • However Lib Dem conference is beset with discussions about how the party can be heard again.
  • Real challenge for the party lies in receiving a public hearing.
  • Cable still has a mountain to climb in order to get an audience from the British public.

BOURNEMOUTH, DORSET — “We are news,” Sir Vince Cable insisted to a room of journalists on Sunday evening.

“We are in the middle of the issue of the day, Brexit,” the Liberal Democrat leader continued, attempting to convince the nation’s press that suggestions the party is struggling for relevance have been greatly exaggerated.

Relevance was the major talking point within the corridors and meeting rooms of the Bournemouth International Centre as the party got together for its annual Autumn conference.

Cable declared to a packed conference hall on Tuesday afternoon “anyone who doubts the relevance of the Liberal Democrats” should remember where the party has stood on Britain’s biggest issues in recent years.

His successor, Tim Farron, claimed in an interview with Business Insider that the party’s mission to become relevant again had been “completed” under his stewardship, which came to an end following the June election.

“However wise right or spot on we’ve been over the past two years, credibility and relevance were our great challenges,” he told BI. “The last two years has been about us surviving, digging in and becoming relevant again. I think that module is completed. We’ve done it.”

Yet the problem is by repeatedly claiming not to have a relevance problem, the Liberal Democrats are effectively conceding that they do.

The party did gain four seats in June but they also saw their vote share drop by 0.4%. And this was despite Farron’s unambiguous pitch to Brits who wanted to stay in the EU at a time when both the Tories and Labour were committed to delivering Brexit. Early, excited talk of a Liberal Democrat revival failed to materialise.

The result doesn’t appear to have done much to dampen the party’s optimism.

Cable claimed on Sunday it’s “perfectly plausible” he could be the next prime minister. A Liberal Democrat majority in 2022 would require the party to add 314 seats to its current tally of 12. “Nobody thought Trudeau and Macron would end up in power,” a party spokesperson suggested during a briefing on Tuesday morning. In the conference shop, copies of “101 Ways To Win An Election” were available for purchase.

But while the party’s seaside get together proved it had the political will to become a party of government again, it did little to suggest it had the formula and ideas for doing so.

The party has proposed a series of policies designed to tackle inequality and distance itself from the austerity years of Cameron, Osborne and Clegg. It will reform how students pay for their tuition, for example; slap punitive tax measures on foreign investors who drive up property prices, and give an extra £6 billion a year to the NHS and social care.

And while these suggestions may be agreeable to large numbers of young people and an austerity-weary public on the surface, they do not address the deep-seated trust issues the public still has with the party, and will likely do so for years and maybe decades to come.

Cable is a vastly experienced politician who still commands respect within British politics. But the scale of the challenge his party faces goes well beyond one well crafted speech, or one finely honed policy.

Right now the biggest challenge is not simply to make the public like what they’re saying again. The real challenge for Vince Cable and his party is to get the public to start listening to them at all.

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